There’s a lot of talk these days about the benefits of “mindfulness,” and a growing body of medical research to back up claims that practicing its skills can do wonders to lower stress, relieve mental, physical and emotional suffering, and improve circulation, digestion, and sleep. In fact, the list of benefits is so long that it could be said that mindfulness practice can benefit every aspect of life!
So what, exactly, is “mindfulness”?
Of the many (often too-long) definitions I’ve seen, I like the one offered by Elana Rosenbaum, a therapist and cancer survivor who teaches mindfulness skills to patients at the Massachusetts Medical Center. “Mindfulness,” she says, is basically the practice of “paying attention on purpose, free of judgement.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And it is…which doesn’t mean that it is easy, as any of us know who have tried to focus our attention on the present moment for even a few seconds without our minds wandering into the future and the past, emotionally reacting and “opinionating” all along the way! That’s where intention, commitment, and practice, practice, practice of the actual skills of mindfulness come in. But more on that in a minute.
While mindfulness practice has its roots in ancient meditation practices of Asia, most cultures and religious traditions include some type of prayer or meditation technique (“centering prayer” in the Christian tradition is one of these) intended to develop the ability to attain the state of receptive, attentive presence that characterizes the state of mindfulness. While these ancient healing and religious traditions have recognized the benefits of mindfulness to mental, physical and spiritual health for centuries, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center (titles of his books have appeared in previous columns), helped to make it a part of mainstream western medicine through programs and studies which have demonstrated its effectiveness.
Perhaps because of its roots in meditative practices however, there are many misconceptions about the aims and results of mindfulness practice. It is a surprise to many people to know, for instance, that the aim is not to attain a state of pure, distress-free calm and unconcern, nor does it mean a passive acceptance of what is unacceptable in our life circumstances, nor emotional disconnection from the people we care about. On the contrary, mindfulness practice invites us to consciously connect even more fully with our moment-to-moment experience (that’s the “paying attention on purpose” part), and to acknowledge our emotions, sensations and thoughts without the “attitude” (that’s the “free of judgement” part). Instead, the aim is (as Elana Rosenbaum puts it): “To be awake and alive in our lives no matter what the circumstances.”
There’s a famous adage (which I think originated in 12-step programs) that “Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.” This tongue-in-cheek saying points to the reality that most of our suffering is a result not of the inevitable pain of living, but our resistance to it: by all the things we habitually do to distract ourselves, numb ourselves, judge ourselves and/or others, exhaust ourselves, fantasize, etc. in order to try to escape our experience, and to change what we cannot control!
With mindfulness practice, we learn to see how our fears and our judgments about our discomfort (whether that discomfort be sadness, anxiety, anger, physical sensations, shame, or other emotional, mental or sensory experience) operate, and we gradually develop the ability not to be so completely caught up in those reactions. And what we discover when we are able to be more present to and accepting of our experience and less preoccupied with trying to change or escape it, is that we are able to be much more lovingly present with others also, because we’re not trying to change or escape our experience of them, either! And far from causing us to be passively inactive in the presence of injustice or harm, mindfulness helps us to see more clearly what needs “doing,” and when. It helps us to shift, that is, from the kinds of reactive actions which are about trying to make our discomfort go away to the kind of skillful, responsive action which the situation itself calls for.
Many years ago, when I began my own training in mindfulness practice, my teacher offered our group an analogy which I still find very useful as a way of thinking about the effect of mindfulness practice on everyday experience, whether that be the experience of special emotional distress, or simply of daily life, with its sometimes-overwhelming speed and simultaneous demands. “It is as if the stressful situation is a hurricane, and you are in that hurricane, along with everyone and everything else. But there is an eye in every hurricane, which is the spot of stillness at the very center of the storm. Mindfulness practice doesn’t let you escape the hurricane, but it makes it possible to shift from living in the swirl to living in the eye.”
Next Month: Some formal and everyday ways to develop mindfulness skills